Washington Macedonia's fragile cease-fire is a small victory for NATO and the European Union that could cast a large shadow if sustained. A prolonged halt to Macedonia's violence would provide a sign that less is more in the post-Milosevic Balkans.
That is, the road to tamping down Southeastern Europe's brutal ethnic wars now passes through patient, measured and disciplined application of political, economic and military pressure from the outside rather than grand operations of war and peace.
The measured approach is far more appropriate for the smaller scale of Macedonia's internal problems than dramatic, U.S.-led military intervention (Kosovo) or big-power diplomatic conference (Bosnia) would be. For the Balkans, tenuous calm in a small place is progress.
And not only for the Balkans. Cease-fires are a dominant feature of the post-Cold War world. They cannot be automatically denigrated because the conflicts they silence have not been resolved. Long-term breaks in fighting in Cyprus, Kashmir and elsewhere reflect partial diplomatic success, not total failure.
The use of the time that a cease-fire can buy is frequently its most important feature. Henry Kissinger's step-by-step diplomacy in the Middle East in the 1970s was a creative way of keeping a cease-fire in place until movement toward peace became possible.
Cease-fires can also be used to hide from tough problems. Iraq's open and flagrant violation for the past three years of the cease-fire that ended the Gulf War is a dangerous case in point. Washington allows the violated cease-fire to buy time for Saddam Hussein, not for resolving Iraq's agony.
New violence could of course at any moment snuff out talks between Macedonia's Slav-dominated government and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
But as I write an ethos of cease-fire seems to prevail for Macedonians, Serbs, Kosovars and Bosnians. They have been subjected to an extraordinary mix of carrots and sticks wielded by the United States and the European Union for nearly a decade. An environment has been created in which the ex-Yugoslavs have real and viable choices to make beyond killing and survival.
Forcing the Macedonians to work through their own difficult choices was the joint strategy adopted by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson; the alliance's military commander, Gen. Joseph Ralston, and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana early last spring.
They refused to be stampeded into internationalizing the conflict. Ralston insisted that NATO would help disarm only if Slavs and Albanians requested that help. Solana kept the economic advantages that reconciliation could bring constantly in focus for the government. Robertson made sure the Albanian guerrillas understood that NATO was not going to intervene on their side in a Kosovo-style operation.
And the Europeans did not fold when the Bush administration said it would provide only logistical support for Macedonia.
"We have agreed that NATO would act mainly or entirely with Europeans, after the Bush administration made clear it would not put in ground troops," French Defense Minister Alain Richard said in Washington this week.
"Europeans are increasingly prepared to take on more responsibilities in this type situation ... and to understand that America may choose not to be involved directly in every crisis. In its way, the Macedonian crisis shows clearly the advantage of a European capability" in defense, Richard said.
NATO and EU officials were forced to immerse themselves in Macedonia's complex ethnic problems. The greatest challenge Europe and the United States face in the Balkans now that Slobodan Milosevic's bloody quest for a Greater Serbia has been thwarted is not military but political: This is a long-term problem requiring constant attention to detail and the patience to let new power and resource sharing arrangements emerge out of the limbo of cease-fire.
Kissinger suggests in his new book on U.S. foreign policy that the great powers may instead want to convene an international conference to design and guarantee "a political solution" for the Balkans.
The idea appeals to the intellect's need for clarity and finality. But neither clarity nor finality is attainable without great sacrifice in this era of hard-won cease-fires. Halting the killing for a prolonged period measured in years is an adequate, if incomplete, goal for U.S. policy in the Balkans, and perhaps in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for the foreseeable future.
The embryonic progress now evident in Macedonia and Kosovo suggests that the bottom-up approach may yet be more effective than grand master plans that would carve out national boundaries and ethnic preserves.
That approach might have worked in the bipolar world of the Cold War. Today's world is messier, more ambiguous and in some ways more promising.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.